The Abraham Nemeth Equation

Until Abraham Nemeth decided to tackle graduate school in mathematics in the 1940s, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and careers were essentially closed to blind people. Louis Braille had opened the world of books to visually impaired people in the early 19th century by developing the eponymous system of raised dots that is used around the world. But no effective method existed for conveying the complexities of mathematical notation to those who could not see until Nemeth devised for his own use a method based on Braille that is now known worldwide as the Nemeth Code. Nemeth died last Wednesday at the age of 94.

He used his invention to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics at Wayne State University. He went on to pursue a career as a tenured math professor at the University of Detroit, now known as the University of Detroit Mercy, and to see his system ease the way of countless blind students who followed him into STEM fields. “Since the adoption of Dr. Nemeth’s Braille code, blind students have been able to enter the fields of science, engineering and technology in greater numbers,” says .

In 1946, he had exhausted “all the undergraduate math courses offered by Brooklyn College, and my wife perceived that I was much happier in mathematics than in psychology. So one day she asked me if I wouldn’t rather be an unemployed mathematician than an unemployed psychologist.”

Although he was an excellent student and pianist, Nemeth, who was born blind in New York City, received no encouragement to pursue his interest in mathematics. His teachers and school counselors saw the lack of a notation system as an insurmountable barrier. However, Nemeth had already figured out how to adapt Braille to help him learn the Hebrew needed to study for his bar mitzvah. Nonetheless, he followed the advice of his Brooklyn College professors and did not attempt a major in math. Despite “having completed courses in analytic geometry, differential and integral calculus, some modern geometry courses, and even a course in statistics” at Brooklyn College, he wrote in an autobiographical essay, he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1940. Hoping to improve his employment prospects, he earned a master’s degree in that subject at Columbia University 2 years later.

Even with a graduate degree he continued doing manual jobs, but he also continued taking math courses in the evening, as “relaxation.” In 1946, he had exhausted “all the undergraduate math courses offered by Brooklyn College, and my wife perceived that I was much happier in mathematics than in psychology. So one day she asked me if I wouldn’t rather be an unemployed mathematician than an unemployed psychologist.” She offered to go to work to support the family while he did graduate work in math. Uncertain that he could gain admission to a Ph.D. program, he volunteered as a math tutor for the returning veterans who were flooding into Brooklyn College. He had improvised a method of writing legibly on the blackboard using his own forehead, nose, chin, and other body parts as guides for where to place lines of text.

Then one day a surprising message arrived. “Unknown to me, I was being observed by the chairman of the math department. One Friday night I received a telegram from him. He informed me that one of his regular faculty members had taken ill and would be disabled for the remainder of the semester. He asked me to report on the following Monday evening to assume that professor’s teaching load. Over the weekend I got the textbooks, boned up to know just enough to teach the following Monday evening, and launched my teaching career.” This led to more part-time teaching at Brooklyn College. 

In 1951, he entered the Columbia University graduate school to study mathematics, but continued teaching part-time, first at other local colleges. In 1954, he began looking for a full-time teaching position. More than 250 applications, in which “I felt it necessary to inform a potential employer in advance about my blindness,” produced two invitations to interviews, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Detroit. “Since, however, the University of Detroit offered a position leading to eventual permanence and tenure, I responded positively to the invitation from that institution first.”

After a day of interviews, University of Detroit officials said they would contact him at home “within a week. So I mentioned in passing that we were going on to Boulder, Colorado, for another interview.” The offer of an instructorship arrived by phone the next morning. He and his wife, who had accompanied him to Detroit, never made the trip to Boulder.

Starting in 1955 as an instructor, he “progressed through the ranks to become an assistant professor, an associate professor, and finally a full professor,” he writes. He earned his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1964 from Wayne State University. 

During his career, Nemeth also remained current with technology, first developing a Braille slide rule and then realizing that his “training and skills would soon become obsolete unless I acquired knowledge and skill in computer science.” He studied the subject over two summers at a National Science Foundation–sponsored program at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. “When I returned to the University of Detroit in the fall of 1969, I designed and implemented a graduate curriculum in computer science, and I taught most of the courses. They included elementary courses like FORTRAN and ALGOL and more advanced courses like data structures, artificial intelligence, non-arithmetic programming, automation theory, systems programming, and so on.”

Thanks to the Nemeth Code, which was published in 1952, and which its inventor traveled the world to teach and publicize, “there are many blind professionals … who are making daily contributions to science,” according to an article by Science Careers’s own Mike Price, inmagazine. One of them, paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij of the University of California, Davis, won the MacArthur “genius” prize for his work on mollusks.

Many challenges still confront blind people on their way to realizing their aspirations.  As Nemeth wrote, “Braille skills, facility in mobility, a knowledge of print practice, and good attitudes” are essential to success. “Without them, a blind person is restricted to semi-literacy and lack of independence.” But as his own trailblazing accomplishments demonstrate, “[e]quipped with these skills, a blind person can progress as far as his motivation, his ingenuity, and his talent will permit.”

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